We’ve all interpreted another person’s words or actions in a way that wasn’t intended. When they’re not clarified, these misinterpretations can create major ruptures which weaken the quality of our relationships with our partners and spouses, friends and family members, even our children. Over time, we may come to feel isolated and uncared about by people who do in fact love us a great deal. To help prevent these types of ruptures or help you out of some that may already exist, here are five steps to happier relationships in the new year.
Step 1: Don’t take things personally. We love to dwell on all sorts of notions we have about what somebody really meant by their words or actions. This is especially true when we’ve already decided that we want a reason to be angry with the person. (Think about this one for a while, because we’ve all done it.) In these cases, we do this unconscious thing in which we edit the meaning of the individual’s words and actions so that it confirms what we want to believe about her or him: that he is mean, that she intentionally says things just to hurt us, etc.
The truth is that nobody communicates well all of the time. Sometimes they’re edgy because of a headache or something personal that’s going on, and are struggling to communicate around their own hurt, their own worry, etc. Most people don’t think over their words that closely; and they’re not usually thinking of how best to offend us when they do. If you’re not sure of the intention behind what someone’s said or done,
Step 2: Seek clarity before deciding to be offended. This might seem fairly obvious because it would clear up much of the hurt that’s caused by miscommunication; yet so few people actually do it. When we’ve been locked into conflict for a long time, we become progressively worse at communicating with any level of clarity. We cycle into a system of misunderstanding in which each of us acts from a place of hurt, firing weird signals back and forth either directly or indirectly. This only serves to deepen our isolation, leading as it often does to deepening feelings of betrayal.
When we hear something we take as hurtful or when we feel slighted by another’s actions, we can name it. Simply saying “When you said this, I felt ignored/discounted/dismissed…,” or “When you didn’t call on Tuesday, I felt overlooked/not cared about/unworthy of your time…” clarifies how you’ve been impacted. While this will feel risky and vulnerable at first, this level of vulnerability is at the heart of intimacy. This is because it allows you to exists in a space that’s real because you,
Step 3: Open dialogue. It’s so important that we do this at multiple levels of interaction. If there’s anything 2016 has taught us, it’s that we are a divided people who struggle to feel heard. How can anyone hear us though if even in our most significant relationships and the ones in which we interact daily, we don’t know how to listen?
Continuing from Step 2, a great next sentence would be, “I’m guessing though that this wasn’t your intention/your wish/what you meant.” This signifies that we don’t believe someone tried to slight us, and that we in fact would like to hear more about the reasoning behind whatever action offended us. Chances are that what the person has to share is miles away from what we were thinking. This is particularly helpful with people we love because it lets us in on how they communicate. It also gives us an opportunity to say what we may be needing of them, thus strengthening healthy 2-way communication. On that topic,
Step 4: Learn the many ways that people express love. Each of us has a method we learned at some point in our development of how to communicate affection. Some can say “I love you” and otherwise verbalize feelings very easily, some are in the moment and can create an incredible experience through a grand gesture of affection, others express themselves through thoughtful cards and gifts, still others are fixers who will show they care by being practical in advice and deeds. All of these patterns are great! Where we get into trouble is in expecting someone to use a pattern of communication that they’ve never used and that’s really foreign to how they think.
Instead of expecting a fixer to write us a love poem or show up with a dozen roses, we’ll be infinitely happier when we embrace the practical advice the person offers or the pair of hands, the tape, and magic markers she or he brings over on moving day. Embracing how somebody delivers affection invites us also to,
Step 5: Show love in a way that comes across clearly to the other person. I’ll use myself as an example for this one. It will always be easy for me to verbalize affection and gratitude in countless ways. Not only can I say exactly what I’m feeling, but I can listen to and hold a person’s hurt feelings and help her or him find a solution out of a crisis or any of a multitude of other life problems. If it’s humanly possible, I’ll show up on moving day. I’m traditionally pretty lousy about cards and gifts though, because I both struggle with time management to go hunt these things out and have difficulty finding objects which precisely express my affection. However, if I know that cards and gifts are important to somebody I care about, it’s a genuine sign of affection if I make a point at improving this method for expressing affection.
This is at the heart of enhancing 2-way communication for the new year: learning to give love or even casual friendship in a way that the person can recognize, and learning to see and hear the signs of affection that a person is sending. As we grow older and participate in multiple relationships with parents, partners, children, siblings, friends, etc., we eventually come to see that everyone communicates with only as much clarity as has been learned. To the extent that we can understand and appreciate what they’re offering, we’ll improve our satisfaction in these relationships.
On that note, when we ask for what we need and how we need it, we’ll be infinitely happier with our relationships than when we don’t ask for what we want, don’t communicate when we’re hurting, and then expect the other person to guess what’s bothering us when we simply shut down or send indirect signals.
My best to you all for 2017 in growing your ability to give and receive love!